The Texas Prosecutor, January-February 2017, Vol. 47, Iss. 1

Helping kids fly high

Serving with the Legal Eagles, an internship program at a predominantly poor Austin high school, has certainly helped the students learn more about advocacy—but it’s also impacted a Travis County prosecutor who volunteers with them.

Sometime in 2014, I began mentoring students who came to the Travis County Courthouse from Akins High School, which is located in mostly high-poverty neighborhoods in South Austin.
    I got involved with these students because I know Robyn Katz, a teacher at Akins. I first met Robyn when she interned at the Lubbock County Criminal District Attorney’s Office, where I was her supervisor. After graduating from Texas Tech School of Law, she served as an Assistant Criminal District Attorney in Bexar County prosecuting family violence cases. After she moved back to the Austin area to teach, she reached out to me to see if I would mentor and work with some of her students, and I jumped at the chance. Robyn was looking to create an internship program for Akins students who were interested in becoming attorneys (the program officially took off in 2015). Many of Akins’s students are Hispanic and African-American, and most don’t have plans to attend college. Because their households are low-income, there is a strong emphasis to get out and work after graduation rather than going on to college. And while there is something tremendously noble about getting into the workforce and contributing to one’s family income, these students have no encouragement to achieve higher education, which could help them in the long run.
     I love interacting with these kids. My mother has been in education for 46 years now, and she still believes that you can save the world “one kid at a time.” She hasn’t stopped helping students succeed by graduating, enrolling in college, and seeking post-graduate degrees. Maybe I have a little bit of that passion too—I want to ensure that today’s students have more knowledge and better opportunities to succeed than I had, so I spend time helping them.

The internship program
The law internship program, named the Legal Eagles after the school mascot, the Akins Eagles, began in 2015. Austin attorneys and respected judges, such as the Honorable Brandi Mueller and Honorable John Lipscombe, assisted in selecting the interested students, who had to go through a rigorous application process. It required students to print out their transcripts, obtain six reference letters from teachers, write two 500-word essays on a topic relating to law, and undergo a criminal background check. After completing that process, they were interviewed by a panel of attorneys and judges. Aside from the softball question of why they wanted to be part of the internship, the students were challenged with tougher questions about their past achievements and struggles, their strengths and weaknesses, and what lessons they’ve learned up to that point in their lives. They were ranked on their honesty, maturity, and genuineness. Out of the number of applications, eight elite students were selected. (The number of students in the program is limited due to participation roles on the mock trial teams as well as limited space for frequent trips to the courthouse.)
    The Legal Eagles partner with the Austin Bar Association (ABA) and the Austin Young Lawyers Association (AYLA). Members of ABA and AYLA meet the students at the courthouse on designated days and educate them about the procedures in the courtroom and allow them to sit in on live dockets, hearings, and trials. They also assist in evaluating the students throughout the internship to ensure the participants gain practical skills through the program.
    In addition to this first-hand experience, the students compete in mock trial competitions, representing their school against others in the district and state. For the mock trials, they are divided into two teams, a prosecution or plaintiff team of two advocates and two witnesses, and a defense team, also of two attorneys and two witnesses. The students are given a lawsuit packet containing the issue being contested as well as the pertinent witness statements and background information, and they are given a couple of months to practice and prepare. I, along with other lawyers, watch them practice and help them improve in their roles. This time I get to spend with the students is so personally rewarding. It’s amazing to see their confidence grow the more familiar they get with the issues and the more they practice. Last year, in their first time to compete for the program, they placed first and fifth in the district competition and advanced all the way to the state competition. And in 2016, they placed first for a second year in a row and are currently preparing to compete at the state level.
    As if all that preparation weren’t enough, each student is also required to log 100 hours of community service throughout the year. Community service is a major aspect of the program, and these students don’t hesitate to participate in their communities. They have volunteered with the Travis County Children’s Shelter Halloween program, Run with the Heroes 5K race (benefitting the Special Olympics), the county Veterans’ Day Parade, local Austin animal shelters, and marches supporting law enforcement. All this work has not gone unnoticed: In 2016, the State Bar of Texas recognized the Austin Bar Association for its partnership with the Legal Eagles and awarded the ABA the 2016 Partnership Award.

My involvement
Initially, when the students came up to the courthouse, I would talk to them about big trials going on. If there were none, we’d discuss the daily duties of prosecutors. I talked with them about the different types of cases, how we make plea offers, when we talk to victims and witnesses, and eventually how we decide to take a case to trial or find an alternative resolution. This interaction happened on a number of occasions, but I wasn’t able to really connect to the students through such limited time together.
    My involvement really expanded when Robyn asked me to come speak to Akins students on Career Day. I didn’t focus the talk on my career and what I do for a living; instead I challenged the kids to begin “advocating for themselves.” I started by asking them simple, everyday questions like, “Who’s the best pitcher of all time?” or “Who’s the best pop singer?” And after every answer they gave me, I’d ask, “Why do you think so?” And every response was the same: “I dunno.”
    When I moved on to more serious questions, such as, “What do you want to do after high school?” their responses were the same: “I dunno.” It’s not that these students aren’t intelligent—they are—they just didn’t challenge themselves and had stopped asking themselves why they think or want certain things. As they grow up, children go from asking “why” about everything—and driving their parents crazy with questions—to not asking at all. Somewhere between grade school and high school, many of us stopped asking “why.”
    I was making an important point in my presentation. I told them that soon in their lives they would be faced with job interviews and college applications, and it’s up to each student to separate himself from hundreds or thousands of other applicants vying for the same spot in a college classroom or workplace. “How can you set yourself apart from everyone else?” I asked them. “What makes you so special that the university can benefit from your being in the student body?” By challenging themselves in everyday conversations—by not only asking “why” but also preparing to answer “why” with educated reasons—they can prepare themselves for their interviews, college, and future careers. In the bigger picture, I was trying to get them to see that they’ve worked hard to get where they are and that it’s important to be able to express that to other people. When they are competing for a scholarship, for example, it’s not enough to say, “I make good grades.” They are selling themselves short by not describing the sacrifices they’ve made (such as putting in extra work, missing various social events, and working a part-time job to help out at home) to get where they are.
    After I spoke to them as a class, I increased my involvement even further. I got to participate in the interview process with those students who were interested in the Legal Eagle internship. Do you remember your first interview? For many of us, it was a long time ago! To refresh your memory, picture this: You walk into a room with four or five people seated around a conference table. Everyone is professionally dressed. You take a seat, and these people pepper you with challenging questions—not only why you are seeking this position but also asking about your greatest achievements and biggest obstacles. The questions call on you to examine your strengths and weaknesses and to answer honestly and quickly. By now, for most of us, going through a job interview seems relatively easy because we can put our qualities and strengths in the best light as well as articulate our weaknesses and what we’ve done to improve on them. But can you imagine being able to do that in high school? Because that’s exactly what these kids did—and much to my amazement, the students’ responses and motives went beyond my expectations. They opened up about vulnerabilities and obstacles they had overcome or were currently dealing with—which is never easy, especially as a high school student.
    To witness the growth of these students from that first day in class, not only in the interest of law but also in maturity, has been amazing to me. I’ve worked with these students as a teacher, interviewer, and mentor, and it’s not because my supervisors demand it or because my job requires it. I don’t receive any additional compensation—I do it on my own time merely for the students’ benefit.  
    My involvement is worth what I put into it 100 times over to see hope and drive begin to grow in them as they look beyond high school graduation. I tell the students, “I don’t want you to be like me—I want you to be better than me.” After all, isn’t that what we are supposed to be doing? Ensuring that this world is a better place for the next generation?

An encouragement to get involved
For those reading this article, I want to stress that this article isn’t about me, it’s about the Akins students. I’m just sharing my involvement with them and how they have impacted my life. All these students needed was encouragement. No one in their lives has ever told them that college is for them. In fact, many believed that college was impossible. It’s amazing to see their determination and belief that they can succeed far beyond high school when before there was none.
    As prosecutors, we are public servants. We serve our communities by protecting them and keeping dangerous individuals locked away. The majority of prosecutors I know don’t necessarily consider themselves as role models or mentors of the next generation, but volunteering in this capacity has shown me that we are. Whether we realize it or not, kids look up to us. We fight for justice and accountability, and we fight for victims across the state who need us to provide a voice for them in court. Based on years of service, we have important experiences to share and pass on to the next generation. We can continue to serve not only in the courtroom, but by mentoring and getting involved in students’ lives.
    I encourage all of you to give back to your community beyond serving as a prosecutor. To many in your communities, you serve as a role model. When you personally get involved with students and inspire them, it is that much more significant to them. I promise that you will find the time you give to them rewarding beyond your expectations—I know I did.